Is It hemlock or cow parsley

Hemlock or Cow Parsley? Think you know? Watch this video and take some time to see if you can tell the difference. In this video I reveal the answer, along with numerous photos to illustrate the plants.

But first I want to make a few things very clear to you, and also about my own way of teaching the edible weeds that surround us…

Firstly, for me foraging is not about being afraid of the nature or the plant kingdom but it is about being respectful. That being said the old forager adage of “When In Doubt, Leave It Out” is not just some pretty statement… it is a fundamental rule, and will save you from coming to harm, and maybe even death!

Many people fear the wild, yet it is not the wild that is at fault, but ourselves!

Plant identification using the internet or books, can be a very rocky path. We live in an information culture, and as a result, and because we all have egos often information is spread around that is incorrect.

Unfortunately sometimes people just want to prove how clever they are, and in their rush to “be right”, often can trip up and take you down the rabbit whole of false information.

Using the internet for plant identification is only JUST THE START of the journey. When you think you have identified a plant yourself or someone has identified one for you in some online group or forum. Do not take it at first hand! Go and get a wild flower identification book, and head on out into nature, and go find the plant.

Botany can only take us so far. For pattern identification (which is your first port of call) and is what wild flower ID books are, it is invaluable, but then other identification factors come into play that are as equally important and quite simply cannot be learnt from books or the internet.

Because we have been foragers for tens of thousands of years, way before Linneaus came up with his classification system or botany or science or even foraging as a word was invented, we had other ways of knowing the world. Those ways are how indigenous cultures got to know plants.

But one of the key ways these cultures learnt plants was orally from the older members of the ‘band’ or ‘tribe’. In our culture that would have been by being an apprentice to someone who knew their subject deeply, and could guide the newcomer.

The ancient romans and greeks said there are three ways to learn a subject. The first way is by personal experience; but it is the most dangerous way, especially when learning plants!

The second way; and the best way, the middle way, was to have a guide or mentor to teach you. And the third way; and the poorest way, was via books and information…

Our modern culture gives high praise to the information way, and as is pretty self evident, we moved from an industrial culture, to an information culture only very recently.

So when it comes to learning plants, there is no better way than to learn directly from someone else.

Learning plants via books and the internet can only take you so far, then you have to get off your screens, and step out into the natural world… it’s not as scary as you think.

Because the video above covers hemlock and cow parsley both members of the Apeacea family formerly know as the Umbelliferae family or the Carrot/Celery family… I want to make something VERY clear…

…This is NOT a plant family for beginners, and it is best left alone until you have gained more experience. But that will come with time as you slowly progress along your own plant journey.

Also plants vary in how they appear not only in the different locations around the country, but also in the illustrated and photo wild flower books… this is why getting your head around a proper Wild Flower Key, rather than photo or illustration books is the better way. One flower key that is highly recommended is by Francis Rose, simply called The Wild Flower Key.

The problem with botanical ID is that it gives us only a piece of the puzzle when learning a plant. One of the quickest and most effective ways to differentiate between hemlock and cow parsley is by smell.

Smell is vital, and I personally believe that every single plant has a unique smell. This belief does not come from some hippy-trippy woowoo understanding of the world, but from my experience travelling overseas and meeting indigenous plantwalkers.

In our modern, techno-civilisation we often exist in our heads, cutting ourselves off from our senses. And as I say on all my foraging courses, in order to be an effective forager or plantwalker you need to “Get Out of Your Head & Come To Your Senses”.

The easiest way to do this is to Pick, Crush & Sniff a plant every day. Doing so wakes up our senses, and is known as Organoleptic Learning… using all our senses, not just our eyes. It is a very powerful way to learn plants.

But Organoleptic Learning or as I call it Sensory Attention has other far deeper outcomes, something I won’t go into in this video, there’s just not enough time.

The purpose of doing this video was to show people just how easy it is to NOT know a plant, simply by using the eyes, and that to fully meet a plant, we must spend time with that plant in its habitat and in context as to where it grows and the relationship that it has with the rest of creation.

I hope you start moving away from gaining plant knowledge via your head, and start spending more and more time outside meeting plants, sitting with plants, and observing them through their growth cycle and the various seasons.

It’s an empowering and enlivening journey walking the Green Path, as my beloved plant mentor Frank Cook called it… but you have to do it. You have to get off the touchline of life, get off your screens and out of the computer and enter the wild… I hope you enjoy the video.


  1. My rabbit has been eathing a plant that looks like cows parsley. The plant grows in our backyard,alot, and she just ate it.
    Do you think it is safe since she has no side effects and it rely looks like cows parsley

    • Hi Pam. My rabbit happily eats foxgloves and scarlet pimpernel, both of which are poisonous. Their digestive tracts are so different from a human’s, I really wouldn’t set my forager’s compass by a rabbit’s eating habits. Hope it helps.

  2. I live in a small town, around 4000 pop., in Iowa, USA. I have not known much of anything about wild plants, but a large plant has grown up behind a rose bush by the front porch. I know it’s a weed but the leaves are lacy and beautiful, so I wanted to try to identify it. Right away I was faced with the choice between hemlock or cow parsley. I have been wavering for days between them. The main stalk and the lower stalks have a white powdery coating with a faint pink tinge. The newer ones at the top are green with no red. There is no really definite groove on the stems, but it’s hard to tell for sure. I picked a leaf and crushed it and it did not have an unpleasant odor, but since my sense of smell was damaged by an antibiotic I took a few years ago, I had someone else smell it and give me her opinion. She agreed with me that it had a nice grassy smell. I had pretty well decided that it was cow parsley, but this morning I rubbed off the powdery coating on the lower stalk and yikes! There were the tiny red “ink spatters” all over it! I looked up at some of the older stems without the white coating and there they were. I’m pretty sure they weren’t there yesterday. Could it be that they don’t show up on stems right away, until they are a bit older? I don’t think there’s any way I’d be eating that plant now ?, but I may keep it around to show people what to look for ( and it has such pretty leaves.) There aren’t any cows or horses around that might eat it and my cats have shown no interest in it.

  3. PS. Looking at the plant again this afternoon, I think the reason I missed the spots before was because I was facing toward the sun and it is hard to see them with the sun in my eyes because they are so small.

  4. Robin, hugely impressed by your Hemlock v Cowslip video. Sound advice, caution and comparison. Getting away from the computer and books, into the wild. I fish for a hobby, with photography as a close 2nd. My route tends to be in reverse, see it, etc., come home and try to identify. If you see this and have time to respond, I’d be interested to know how to link up with you or a ‘Competent forager’. Nick

  5. loved it! have an exchange group and hemlock came up in the discussion. you’re video was spot on and so easy to listen to. Love that you stressed getting out there and also being 500% positive of what you are dealing with. Thank you for sharing!

    • I’ve only just come across this question, but maybe I can help. Robin will correct me if I’m wrong! I think there are four main ways to tell sweet cicely apart from hemlock and, generally, cow parsley.

      1. Odour. Sweet cicely has a distinct sweet aniseed smell to it quite unlike anything else. The closest I can come is aniseed or fennel, but cicely is much lighter, sweeter and more fragrant. To my knowledge, it’s the only apiacea that looks like hemlock and CO but smells like aniseed.

      2. Leaf blotching. Sweet cicely often has pale green, almost white blotching at the base of the lead stalks where they branch out from the secondary stalks. It looks like someone splattered yoghurt or pale white paint on it.

      3. Hair. Sweet cicely is quite hairy, even more so, in my experience, than CP. Even the leaves have hair on the underside, which not everyone likes!

      4. Distribution. In the UK, SC really only appears in the north. If you’re in the south, it’s highly unlikely to be SC.

      Hope that helps!

  6. Hemlock is hairless, cow parsley and the rest of them have hairs on them, hemlock also has purple spots all over it, they’re a big give away and also hemlock can grow to be huge, like nearly metres!

  7. Thank you for showing side by side comparisons. I especially liked the stems showing hemlock having a hollow stem, and cow parsley showing only a small opening. Here in Washington state U.S.A. our cow parsley looks very different. The leaves grow up to 2 feet across, and the plant grows up to 8 feet tall. Our climate here is temperate rainforest, and I have only seen cow parsley up along the edges of old logging roads. I have photos if you would like to see them. Thanks for the well done video and information.

  8. I got confused with the left and right. I wasn’t sure if it was your left or my left. It’d be helpful for confused people like me if when you had your two speciments laid out side by side….that you wrote left and right above the specimens. That would take away any confusion when you referee to left and right. Thank you so much for the info. I have your book and am on your email list.

  9. Really enjoyed watching this and it was made abundantly clear how careful you had to be. When I was growing up in Yorkshire every single member of this family – hemlock, cow parsley, sweet cicely etc was called Mother Die and we were all told that if you even brushed past it, your mother would die…. It was a very good deterrent!

  10. Robin, as an artist/teacher I really respect your words on being attentive and taking time and energy to investigate and get to know your ‘subject’. A landlord cut back massive brambles bordering my garden last year – I was so sad for the birds particularly, but the last few weeks these massive forms, like cow parsley with tiny tiny white flowers, have emerged and the dunnocks/sparrows seem to love them. I am off over the wall to look, crush and smell! Thank you so much. I hope to get to one of your courses one of the days!

  11. A really interesting article, the video is especially good, showing in detail the key difference between hemlock and cow parsley. This item is without doubt a life saver, well done and many thanks.

  12. Hi Robin

    I came across your video after finding a weed in the woods which I couldn’t identify as hemlock or caw parsley (or wild carrot). I was aware of some of the differences, but your video really put them all into context. My plant ID app said hemlock, but I never trust it 100%, especially not with this kind of plant!

    After watching it, I ventured back out and took a good look at the stem. Noticing the purple blotches, I cut them stem open to reveal a large hole and faint dots on the perimeter. So, definitely hemlock!

    Thank you so much. Your video really brings home the idea that we need to get out more nowadays, rather than simply poring over books, which can often be misleading.

    A quick question, if I may. After cutting the stem, do I need to clean my scissors in any way? They will be used again at some point in cooking. I have asked them in hot water and Fairy liquid, but I wasn’t sure whether that was enough.


  13. Hi Dominic – Glad my video was useful to you. Yes, most definitely give your scissors a good wash in soapy hot water. And just to be certain, boil them in a saucepan of water for 10 minutes after washing in hot soapy water.

  14. Thank you,
    That was so useful, I agree with your comments about our information culture and appreciate the thorough description and explanation.

    with regards

  15. Excellent video and commentary, thanks Robin. I’ve only just, after many years foraging, begun to gain the confidence to really start learning to identify these plants and having encountered them in the wild, this was really helpful to me.

  16. If I was to send you a picture, would you be able to tell me if it is cow parsley? I picked some on a walk and am now anxious it isn’t actually cow parsley! My young daughters helped me.

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